US court throws out conviction of American security guard over massacre of 14 Iraqi civilians
A US appeal court on Friday threw out the first-degree murder conviction of a former Blackwater Worldwide security guard sentenced to life in prison in the killings of 14 unarmed Iraqi civilians in a Baghdad roundabout in 2007.
The court also ordered the resentencing of three others convicted in the incident.
The killings aggravated resentment about the accountability of American security forces during one of the bloodiest periods of the Iraq war.
The three-judge panel of the US Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit ruled that the trial court “abused its discretion” in not allowing Nicholas Slatten, 33, to be tried separately from his three co-defendants, even though one of them said he, not Slatten, fired the first shots in the massacre.
The court also found the 30-year terms of the others convicted of manslaughter and attempted manslaughter – Paul Slough, 37; Evan Liberty, 35; and Dustin Heard, 36 – violated the constitutional prohibition against “cruel and unusual punishment”.
They received the enhanced penalty because they were also convicted of using military firearms while committing a felony, a charge that primarily has been aimed at gang members and never before used against security contractors given military weapons by the US government.
A group representing friends and family of the four tweeted: “Not a complete home run for all 4 men, but it is something.”
It could not immediately be determined whether Slatten would be retried. Spokesmen for the US Justice Department and US lawyer Channing Phillips said Phillips’s office “is reviewing the opinion”.
The contractors were convicted of firing wildly into cars stalled in mid-afternoon traffic at Nisour Square on September 16, 2007, pouring machine-gun bullets and grenades into crowds, including women and children holding their hands in the air.
The US refusal to allow the men to be tried in Iraq sent relations between the countries into a crisis, and the Blackwater name became shorthand for unaccountable US power.
The Pentagon cracked down on contractors and scaled back their use, but continues to rely on them. They include more than 23,000 in Afghanistan and upward of 5,000 in Iraq.
In overturning the 30-year terms, Circuit Judges Karen LeCraft Henderson and Janice Rogers Brown wrote that “their poor judgments resulted in the deaths of many innocent people” but the sentencing judge – US District Judge Royce Lamberth – should tailor more “nuanced” penalties based on each defendant’s wrongdoing rather than using a “sledgehammer”.
Circuit Judge Judith Rogers disagreed, saying the claim “lacks any merit whatsoever”, calling the 30-year terms “appropriate” for the crime and noting that other security guards chose not to fire their weapons at all that day.
An Iraqi official at the embassy in Washington, who was not authorised to speak by name, said on Friday that the shootings are “still raw after all these years” and were an “egregious atrocity that these people committed”.
Prosecutors said the four defendants, among 19 Blackwater guards providing security for State Department officials in Iraq, panicked and were out of control when the fired after one of them falsely claimed their convoy was threatened by a car bomber.
The guards said that they acted in self-defence after coming under gunfire as they cleared a path for another Blackwater team evacuating a US official from a car bombing.
During the 10-week trial in 2014, no witness testified that they saw the guards come under fire.
Gabor Rona, visiting professor at the Cardozo School of Law at Yeshiva University in New York and chairman of a United Nations working group on mercenaries, called the ruling an “excellent case in point” for the need for more international regulation of the private security industry.
“This is exactly the wrong way to pursue foreign policy. Creating private armies to fight wars for states is medieval, and contrary to any reasonable interpretation of what’s good for the United States and what is good for human rights,” Rona said.